I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we define ourselves at networking meetings. Have you ever noticed the way people respond when you ask them “And what do you do?” Nine times out of ten, they start by saying “I am an accountant”, “I am a designer” or “I am a life coach” – or some other professional identity.
And “identity” is the key word – we are all too ready to define who we are in terms of what we do. So a question about what we *do* gets answered with a statement of what we think we *are*. Funny that isn’t it?
As an aside, I have to confess to having a bit of fun with people when they do that – I say, “Yes, OK, you’re an accountant (or coach or whatever) – but what do you actually *do* for people.” You’d be amazed at how many times that rather obvious question has completely flummoxed someone!
You see, there’s a problem with trying to define ourselves like that: a definition is, by definition, a limitation. As soon as we say, for example, “I’m a coach” (I changed the example – don’t want accountants thinking they’re being picked on!) we have immediately closed off all the other great ways we might be able to add value to someone’s life. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like limiting myself!
And there is another way that defining ourselves by our profession is bad for us: the people we are speaking to will have their own preconceptions about what being a (insert profession here) means. And I’d be willing to bet that their idea of what your profession does has very little connection with what you really do. If they don’t need what they *think* you do, by defining yourself, you stop them getting to know what you can *actually* do for them.
That’s all very well, but there’s a challenge with all this. You can’t take the creative, undefined approach either. I have lost count of the number of highly-qualified people who have stood up at a networking event and come out with a wonderfully uplifting description of how they help people – usually something around clarity and achieving their dreams – that is just too vague and leaves people asking themselves “Yes, but what do they actually do?”
Humans are really very simple creatures, and the human mind is just a meaning-making machine. It likes putting people in boxes – “accountant”, “marketer”, “coach”, etc. And if we don’t tell it which box to put us in, there’s no knowing where it’s going to file us – usually, in the case of our flowery-languaged professional, in the “way too hard to work out” box.
So that makes announcing ourselves by our profession a good idea, doesn’t it?
A bit of a dilemma, I think you will agree!
And, as you might expect, it’s a dilemma for which I have a solution: you have to do both. You start by defining yourself by a profession or function (accountant, coach, marketer, IFA) – telling the mind what box you belong in. And then, while the box is still open, before the limitation inherent in the definition has taken hold, you immediately follow that up with your expansive description of what you actually *do*. The way I suggest you do that is to carry on and say something like “… and my particular genius is … (insert here the way that you love helping people).”
For me, it goes something like: “I’m a business and life coach, and my particular genius is creating and structuring profitable businesses that completely resonate with who my clients really are at their core.” [4N breakfast colleagues, before you start, yes I know you haven’t heard me say that – I just came up with it. Good isn’t it?]
When people hear me say I’m a coach, their mind will typically shove me straight into the “fluffy b-s1” box, and try to get the lid closed and securely taped down as quickly as it can. But then they’ll hear the bit about my genius and while their mind is distracted I’ll be out of that box and talking to them about profitable business, and resonating with who they really are.
I can’t promise a similar formula will work for everyone – but doesn’t it have to be better than being boxed up and filed away as a boring accountant, a crazy designer, or whatever stereotype your particular profession is blighted by?
And that’s my challenge for you this week: get out of your box and tell people what you can do for them – escape the limitation of professional definition!
1 One of my favourite clients takes great delight in telling people that my work is “not a load of fluffy bullshit” and that Joyful Genius is “not as Disney as it sounds”!